Better Off Dead


gerrit_icon.gif huber_icon.gif

Scene Title Better Off Dead
Synopsis Are they?
Date February 16, 2021

He's sat in the same position for three hours.

The concrete-walled office has a massive window looking into the production floor where machinery silently works under dim illumination. The office itself is dark, save for the pale glow of several computer monitors running a wireframe screen saver of the antagonist's head from Tron. Maxwell Huber hasn't slept in days. Hunched at his desk, one hand over his mouth, he keeps looking at the report in front of him and reading the same flippant comment in the attached email chain over, and over again.

Occasionally Huber will look past the glass window, into the production floor beyond, and his stomach will twist into knots. He's been debating what to do since the email came across his desk, been debating since everyone left for the night, been debating too late into the evening that it's almost morning again. His hand smooths across his stubbled jaw, eyes unfocused, eyes unseeing. He swallows audibly, finally reaching down to rest his hand on his mouse. He looks at the email again, down to one line in particular. Bile rises up in the back of his throat.




February 16, 2021

Huber clicks on the trash can icon beside the email.

"Jesus Christ," he whispers to himself, slowly rolling his chair back away from his desk. It's only now that Huber recognizes what time it is. He stands up, raking fingers through his short hair, trying to make sense of the last few hours. Swallowing down the dry lump in his throat, Huber turns just in time for the door to the lab to tentatively open, revealing the silhouette of someone out in the brightly lit concrete-walled hall. "H—Hello?" Huber asks, voice hoarse.

Gerrit VanDalen slowly steps into the lab, looking around with unfamiliar eyes at the high ceiling and rows of powered down computer terminals. "Are you normally here this early?" Gerrit asks in a tense voice, scanning the consoles. Once his eyes adjust to the dark and he can better see Huber, he reconsiders. "Jesus, Max, have you even gone home?"

Huber shakes his head and scrubs his hand over his mouth, then turns his back to Gerrit and picks up a coffee from yesterday. He downs the half-full, room-temperature coffee in two loud swallows. "I had something in my head I needed to get out," he says exasperatedly, setting the paper cup down. Huber can hear Gerrit's approach, feel the tension rising off the other man.

"Max." Gerrit says, voice tight. Huber doesn't turn, not right away. When he does, it's directly into Gerrit's fist. Huber falls backwards, tries to catch himself on his chair but it rolls away. Huber continues to fall, smacking the back of his head against the desk and landing sprawled out on the floor. The empty paper coffee cup falls with a rattle to the floor and Gerrit crushes it flat as he closes the distance between the two. "How long have you known?"

Huber sees spots in his vision, just lays on the floor and tries to blink them away while staring up at Gerrit's silhouette looming over him. Eventually, Huber just lays his head against the cold concrete floor, presses his aching cheek to it. "You hit me," he groans, holding his jaw. Gerrit winds up and kicks Huber in the leg as hard as he can.

"How long have you—" Gerrit starts to shout, then transitions into a hissed whisper, "fucking known?"

"The whole time," Huber slurs into his palm. "I think you knocked out a filing." He says, spitting onto the floor.

Gerrit is so furious he can't articulate words, instead he winds up and kicks Huber in the thigh again. "You fucking son of a bitch!" He finally spits out. "When were you going to tell me? When were you fucking going to tell me?"

Huber doesn't answer, he just grunts and rolls onto his side.

"I'm leaving today." Gerrit says with a quaver in his voice. "To go fucking get her, and—"

"Don't." Huber groans, slowly pushing himself up into a seated position, nearly hitting his head on the underside of the desk at he does. He works his jaw from side to side, fingers delicately cradling his chin. "Just don't."

Gerrit hunches over and winds up to punch Huber in the top of the head. "Don't tell me what to—"

"They'll kill you. Jacoba. Everyone." Huber says, enough to get Gerrit to stop mid-swing before the angry punch connects. Gerrit tenses, nostrils flared, and he looks at Huber's desktop with his email open as if what's left in the inbox would offer some insight. Ity doesn't.

"Help me up." Huber groans, holding out a hand with a little blood smeared on it. Gerrit stands in silence looking at the hand. After a moment he deflates with a sigh, takes Huber's hand and hauls him to his feet.

"Explain." Gerrit demands, then turns Huber's desk chair around for him to insist the engineer sit. Huber, still a little wobbly, complies. Gerrit spins Huber around in the chair around to face him, then leans in. "Explain," he reiterates.

Huber swallows audibly and leans one elbow on the arm of his chair, head in his hand. "Management wants to liquidate all material assets," Huber says casually, though the warning makes Gerrit recoil as if he'd just touched a hot stove. "Leadership is worried about the fallout from the project and finance has run numbers indicating it would be cost effective to start from scratch rather than run the risk of the current deployment model. They asked me to coordinate a plan for liquidation."

Gerrit steps back, two or three times, and falls back into another wheeled office chair across from Huber. Tears well up in his eyes. Sitting forward, Gerrit draws his hands down his face, leaving them covering his mouth. He stares off into the distance, past Huber, to the production floor.

"I deleted the email. I'm going to pay Rami to clean it off the server. Play dumb until upper management pings me again for a status update and start the whole conversation over again." As Huber explains his plan, Gerrit finally lets his hands fall down off of his mouth and into his lap with dead weight.

"Why would they do that?" Gerrit asks, though deep down he knows the answer.

"We need to buy time so I can come up with a solution to make the current model look either profitable or irreplacable." Huber says with a slow shake of his head. "I've been trying to figure out how to do it all night."

Gerrit focuses on Huber's face, half illuminated by the monitors. "What'd you figure out?"

"Nothing." Huber says with a slow shake of his head. "We either need to engineer a breakthrough with the current test subjects, or we need to scrape close to a billion Euros off the bottom line. Failing that, I don't know."

Gerrit's stomach twists, but he sits in horrified silence. Behind his eyes, conversations with Jacoba bloom and die. He keeps walking through scenarios where he tries to explain this to her. How losing their daughter, twice, would feel.

"I'm sorry." Huber says quietly. "For not telling you. For making her. They wanted production models of all of them. She was supposed to stay here, I—there were arrangements. Safeguards."

"How is that safe?" Gerrit asks in a whine. "How is any of this safe?"

Huber doesn't have an answer. Neither of them do.

They sit in silence for an hour.

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